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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

shifting gears to education for a bit...

A debate that is coming up in my place of employment is best framed by the question: What is the point of high school?  The quick background is the administration did away with the rather popular foods program last year, and this year has been presented with a petition from the top 20% of students seeking to do away with the graduation requirement that all students take 10 credits (two classes) in a general education category, consisting of classes like music, art, business, and other courses that don't fit the traditional English, math, social studies, science, or language labels.  I don't intend to go into their rationale (which is about their GPAs and desire to take more AP courses), nor do I mean to go into the response of the administration (which can be seen as a classic Chamberlain approach...), but I do want to spend a moment thinking about the purpose of a high school education.

I am a strong believer in the liberal arts as a vital component of education.  I do not believe that it is a good thing for adolescents to specialize in a field of education while in public high school.  That being said, it should be easy to guess the drift of my post here.  As long as education is compulsory, it should be as broadly based as possible. This is for the micro level of the individual.  A broadly based, comprehensive education for high school students ensures that we have individuals who are exposed to many different subject areas. This is important because we can't know what passions will catch people's eye.  While adolescents are questing for meaning in life, they may find it in unlikely places.  By being exposed to lots of different disciplines, they may find the one that leads them to a future vocation or avocation that will provide them with satisfaction/fulfillment or even happiness.
But this is also true for the macro level. By exposing our youngest, newest citizens to all manner of academic disciplines, society benefits from having members who are able to understand each others' interests.  By having exposure to the different areas of study, students are able to draw connections between them and are thus able to communicate new ideas, formulate unique approaches to the new problems our society faces.  Building a common culture is important to do (thanks Nat!), and a broad based education can do that.

That being said, my school needs some reform, and the students are sort of onto something. I'd go in a radically different direction though, and I don't think they would like my proposal.  At the present time, there is a four year requirement only for English, and all the other subjects are at three years or fewer.  So the first proposal I would make is for all subjects to be a four year requirement. English, math, language, Social Studies, science and the Fine and Performing Arts.

The second proposal is that all subjects offer survey courses in the 9th and 10th grade years. Though I hate the phrase, they should be a mile wide and an inch deep; provide as broad an exposure as possible to as much of the content and skills of the discipline.  After that, each discipline would shift gears to offer semester long electives that deal with different aspects of the subject matter. This would give students some options/choice in topics they study, but would also allow for deeper study/experience with material that would allow them to build up some expertise in the material as well.
I'll talk about the content of the Social Studies curriculum in a later post, because I think that needs to be fleshed out and changed a great deal from what the state of Massachusetts currently requires, but I'll dip into two areas I know not much about first.

A) Language study must always be either with the goal of attaining fluency in the language, or with the goal of exposing the learners to as many different languages as possible to facilitate later study.  The present halfway attempts at teaching students Latin, French, Spanish and Italian in my school fall far short of anything students can use in the future. This isn't a knock on the teachers who teach these subjects, as much as it is a commentary on the slackness of the language requirements/guidelines enacted by the state. Two years isn't enough time to study a language if fluency or broad exposure is the goal. Additionally, language study needs to be broadened from the four languages mentioned above.   Latin and French need to be supplemented or be replaced (if enrollment is declining, which may or may not be the case, I'm not sure) by Arabic, Chinese and an African language like Swahili.  I'd love to discuss the idea of a linguistics course in 9th grade followed by a more specialized study that is more based in real life speaking and writing than in textbook repetition.

B) Math Three words: Creative Problem solving.  Stop labeling courses as being algebra or trig or that topic.  Teach bridge building, architecture, physics, structural design, algorithms, statistics, probability etc.  Make it relevant, make it practical, make it as real world as possible.  Throw away the textbooks, get out the building materials and let's get teenagers excited to build, create, innovate and tackle the mathematical problems our world faces.

Lastly, the AP program should die. Now that the College Board is certifying classes, it means that the curriculum I teach is not impacted by my control, local control, or even state control, but is being dictated by a private company whose interests are not my students but their profit margin. Oh, I'm sorry, they are a non-profit that charges students $8 to call them, $10 to electronically send their SAT scores, $80+ dollars to take an AP exam, sells SAT prep materials for $25, and and collects hundreds of dollars from teachers to be trained in how to teach their materials. Non profit my ass.  The point, though, is that what they offer can be done better, with more rigor by teachers, so we should not be held hostage to their program of studies.

Are they kidding?

Wow. Now we have reached a new low in legislative history. The senate wing of the republican party votes to extend a tax cut that aligned with their party's values, with the understanding that they will take up the issue again in two months.  They forced Obama, hereafter "jellyspine", to back off another "solidly held principle" about an oil pipeline that he wouldn't approve, and voided a provision that would have taxed the rich to pay for the payroll tax cut, an act that will continue to cause a problem with the later funding of Social Security...Nonetheless, the Senate, in a rare fit of bipartisanship, passes the bill then goes on vacation. (cause they were working so hard, right?)

Then it goes to the House where once again Agent Orange demonstrated that he too has no ability to say no to the junior members of his party, and he sends the bill into conference, knowing that the senate is gone on holiday!! All because he is not willing to actually toe the line with the newest members of Congress in his own party.  I'm actually longing for the days when the GOP fell into line unthinkingly...

And Agent Orange says jellyspine has to call the Democrats back into session, demonstrating his ignorance of the constitutional proceedures...but that isn't new...

So the GOP has to be wondering the same thing I am: who the hell is driving this train?And at what point do we the voters say we've had enough of this crap?

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Sorry Adam Smith...we figured out your loophole

The "invisible hand" of the market.  The corrective force that keeps the overall market in line.  The idea Adam Smith came up with is pretty simple: The purchasers of the goods and services available help to determine the cost of the items.  They make rational decisions to buy something based on the cost and quality of the good, coupled with their taste.  Goods that either cost too much, are not well made, or that fall out of the prevailing taste will disappear from the market, cheap crap won't flood the market, and in the end, supply will be kept in line with demand.

Of course, this is theoretical, but the theory was pretty sound.  But it was based on an assumption that is no longer true: people are rationally concerned about how they spend their limited money.

With the advent of the common use of credit cards and debit cards, people have become inured to the bad feelings that come from spending money.  Swipe the card and the item is bought.  No one is opening a wallet, counting money and feeling it physically depart.  With a credit card I can spend more than I actually have, secure in the knowledge that I can then pay it off a little at a time for an indefinite period.  And the more I do this, the higher my credit limit will rise and the more I can purchase. (Of course, the crash that comes later when I can no longer make those monthly payments is a problem...) So people no longer treat their money in the same way they used to when it felt like a more finite resource.

So there is no longer the presumption of rational spending. People disregard price, and may even disregard taste as they make decisions about how to spend their money, because the money is no longer as valuable to them as it once was. So price is removed from the invisible hand's arsenal.

Nor are the products as valuable; they can be easily returned.  Buy it and decide you don't like it? Return it and the money goes back on your card.  Broken?  Poorly made? Return it for a refund or even exchange it for a similar item.  And, if you can't do either of those, the credit card company will step in and help you out.  Since there is no longer a need for the average consumer to worry about the quality of the items, quality is no longer a part of the invisible hand.

And taste...ah, taste.  I shall not begin to rant about how homogeneous we have become as a society, but I will say that as this has happened, the idea that the market contains a variety of versions of the same item and this can influence people's purchasing decisions is no longer as true as perhaps it once was, and thus the invisible hand is less effective.

The end result of all of this?  Well, on the one hand the consumer is less potent a force in the marketplace, and can not influence the behaviors of corporations through spending decisions. A self-inflicted wound to be sure, but a problem for the marketplace none the less.  On the other hand, and in the larger picture, it means that we can't rely on the market to regulate itself.  Laissez faire policies can not and should not be followed, for there is no "natural" brake on the behaviors in the marketplace.  Which means we need tighter regulatory systems and a greater oversight on the behaviors of the actors in the marketplace, especially those in a position to manipulate swaths of the market.

I would argue that as part of the general Welfare, it is the responsibility of the government of the United States to act to protect consumers if the market is no longer able to regulate itself.  Dodd-Frank is only the beginning of the regulations that the SEC and other agencies need to begin to implement if the market is to maintain any sense of integrity and the consumers aren't going to get hosed.

And it wouldn't hurt if the consumers began to wean themselves from credit cards and make a swing back to using more cash to restore some integrity to the invisible hand of the market...

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

anger management

As I was catching up on my daytime TV (thank you pneumonia...), I happened to catch a Louis Black rant on the Daily Show, and an hour later the most recent ad against Scott Brown's candidacy for Senate, and had a bit of an epiphany:  Democrats just don't do anger well, and Republicans do.  Now sure, Republicans have the stereotype of being a bunch of angry white men, and there is something to that, but I'm thinking about ads, for the moment, not the party composition.

One of the first attack ads ever was the so-called "Daisy" ad by Lyndon Johnson's campaign.  You can check it out here if you like.  Subtle, isn't it? So we've come a long ways since then.   The latest ad about Scott Brown: Gone Washington, illustrates what I mean about a lack of anger. You can watch it here on youtube.  It's a good example of the tone-deafness of Democratic groups.  At this point, frustration is incredibly high amongst voters, and there is a lot of honest and deserved anger toward the way Washington DC is not working.  But listen to the tone in that ad: chiding, disappointed, tsk, tsk, tsk. But not angry. I have yet to see an ad for Elizabeth Warren, his presumptive opponent, but I'll be willing to bet that they will likewise try for the intellectual, "we're above petty emotion/we need to be the grown ups" approach that Obama has been trying until recently, to little success. It isn't going to resonate with the tone of the electorate if they try to avoid the anger thing. I think they should embrace it.

Democrats need to get mad. I'm not suggesting that Louis Black should be their role model, for he is a comedian working to get a laugh, but some righteous anger about how the GOP has stonewalled American progress in the name of party ideology is more than appropriate. I'd suggest an ad campaign themed: "I'm fed up".  Feature all kinds of working class folks saying just that phrase, interspersed with a brief screen shot consisting of the title, date and summary of each piece of legislation that the Republicans have stonewalled or rejected, or clips of Mitch McConnell declaring his only goal is to make Obama a one term president, or similar commentary from Boehner/Cantor, etc. and close with "throw the bums out" or words to that effect. Use anger to rally support nationwide to change the composition of the congress, for that is where the problems with our political system largely exist.

(Then please, please, do not let Nancy Pelosi back in the Speakers chair, and toss Harry Reid out of his post and replace them with others--fresh leadership is desperately needed, and Ms. Hannigan and Droopy the Dog just don't cut it or get it...)

Along these lines, I just was reminded from a small item in the globe that a classmate of mine from Conn is the communication director for the Republican National Party.  Which means he coordinates the message, tone and content for all communication coming out of the GOP. Now, I didn't know Sean well, nor would I say personally; we probably spoke in passing three times.  I know he was a good sailor, and he was very good at the "hail fellow, well met" moment.  And I know he never was elected class president, despite trying annually, And I know he was a mean drunk. So I have every confidence that he will manage the tone of the Republicans to harness that anger productively.  Democrats could learn something from that. Maybe they need a mean drunk of their own...

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Banking

On the way home from my neices' 2nd birthday party I was flipping radio stations and heard two stories relating to banking that got me thinking about the way banks work or don't work these days.

Banks exist as a place for people to store their wealth, right? I put my money into a bank because it feels like a safer place for it to be than under my mattress. I am also given an incentive to put my money in a bank because I can earn interest on the deposits I put there. Banks then traditionally earn a profit by loaning out my money at a higher rate of interest (set in part by the interest rates regulated by the Fed)  than they pay me to keep it there. As that money is repaid, the bank is able to keep a positive balance on their ledgers and loan out more money, thus earning more money. As the bank does better, they can then offer a higher rate of interest on the deposits to its customers, thus earning more customers, attracting more money, and the bank can grow. I think it is safe to call that the "social banking contract."
So we had a problem at the turn of the 21st century, because banks got greedy, and broke that contract.  Banks got bigger by merging/taking over each other, thus lowering the number of banks in existence.  For instance, I went from banking with BayBank to BankBoston to Fleet Bank to Bank of America, all in a nine year span. With each merger/acquisition, the interest I received went down, and the fees I paid went up. Banks began charging me to keep my money there (maintenance fees) to access my money (ATM and teller fees and check writing fees) and to deposit my money (fees if not direct deposited, minimum balance fees, overdraft fees, etc...). Not only that, but then, when I got a loan from my bank, they bundled it together and sold it with other loans to other financial institutions who began betting on my ability to pay it back. Though I paid mine off, in an attempt to generate more income from interest, banks made loans to people who were not as able to make their payments, especially on mortgages, and, well, we know what happened next...All because modest profits weren't enough.

In the aftermath of the financial meltdown, the federal government bailed out the very same, overly large banks that led us into the problem, and then, in an attempt to get people to borrow more (because, of course, the peoples' spending is what needed to be fixed...), the Fed lowered interest rates, thus lowering the rates banks offered on their loans. This lowered their profits, which made the banks who were traded on the stock market lose value/market share, so bank leadership needed to keep their profit margins up. So they lowered interest rates offered on the accounts people maintained, and raised the fees associated with banking to new levels. So ATM fees went from $.50 to as much as $4 from each bank if using an out-of-network ATM. So even though rates for borrowing are low, rates for savings are even lower. (So much so that Capital One is running ads advertising a rate "3x higher than the national average," and that amounts to .85%.) So, customers begin to look for other places to put their money rather than banks.  The increased fees also serve to drive customer resentment up, for while they may tolerate fees if they are earning interest, they aren't "interested" (ha ha) in getting whacked twice. 

And, on top of that, banks are less willing to loan out money to people, (feeling burned by their own sub-prime scheme--oh the irony) AND are foreclosing on people's homes in manners that would make George Bailey fling himself off a bridge. Combine that with the "high" unemployment rate and the Occupy Wall Street is born as a movement, as the banking system is broken.  But it would be so easy to fix.

Interest rates need to go up. 

If the Fed raises rates, even just a little bit, banks can charge higher interest rates on loans, as the Prime Rate would be higher. They would thus be incentivized to loan more money. This would place banks in competition for customers' cash deposits, which would cause them to raise the rates they offered on savings accounts, CD's, even checking accounts. If they were making a profit off of loans, they could (but likely won't) lower their fee structure.  Thus, money begins to move around in our system again.

Oh, and Congress needs to make Credit Default Swaps illegal, and prohibit the sale of mortgage loans issued by banks. And banks need to be less freakin' greedy. And maybe smaller.

Simple.

Friday, September 30, 2011

A response to an email from Joe Biden titled "What are you waiting for?" as a campaign solicitation

Dear Joe-
Thanks for the email.  I have already donated this year and am still awaiting the promised T-shirt that was to arrive as a result of that donation.  Sadly, that wait for the t-shirt is becoming emblematic of my wait for the President. Though I will likely support the President in his re-election campaign, I will be doing it with a great deal less enthusiasm than I did in the first campaign.  What am I waiting for?  Good question, thank you for asking.

Though I know the President has been hampered by Congressional intransigence in recent months, it bears remembering that the Democrats squandered their majority in both houses in the mid-term elections, in no small part because the needed, promised, hopeful leadership was subsumed by careful, pragmatic, passionless, dry-cleaned shirt decision making.  Yes, the American people want a grown up in the White House.  Yes, they want a leader who is intelligent, thoughtful and considerate. But they also want a leader who is going to stand tall, and know when to be loud about the priorities the Party espouses. Yes, compromise is the heart of legislation, but you can't trade a donkey you've already given away, and time and time again, there is no donkey in the stall. Only piles of elephant droppings.

Why not donate? I'll tell you why: I can't think of a young, visible, up-and-coming Democratic leader who is out there inspiring people on behalf of the President.  I see the same, old, tired faces on TV, in the House and in the Senate.  Something is lacking in the Democratic Party when Republican after Republican goes out into the world and blatantly lies, distorts and deceives the American people, and the only response is, once again, Chuck Shumer, or Nancy Pelosi, or poor Debbie Wasserman trotting out the same tired rhetoric, carefully avoiding actually calling their counterparts out for their mis-information and lies. There is a time to be nice, but not so long ago, Senators and Representatives were able to be cutting and incisive about their opponents' failures; these days they need to grow a pair and just speak the truth. Stop being programmed and start being honestly passionate. Look at the crop of candidates running against Scott Brown in my home state.  Elizabeth Warren is a lovely person, but she has 1/10th the charisma of Teddy, and 1/5th the legislative smarts, and none of the passion.  The rest of the crop of candidates are a bunch of also-rans who couldn't get elected to their own town council, but keep trying over and over again. No matter who they are, very rarely will they speak about what they believe for fear of alienating someone.  Of course someone will be alienated!! That's the point.  You can't please them all, all the time, so be truthful to yourself and others will follow! The very definition of leadership is to propose a vision and then convince others to follow it.  The Democratic party needs a farm team system, it needs to re-cast its candidates, and it needs to do this yesterday.

Why not donate? Now the President is on the road, touting a bill he should have pushed, with language he should have used, over a year ago.  There has to be consistency between the way he campaigns and the way he governs, and sadly, I'm not seeing that.  The bully pulpit is the President's only effective means of legislating.  But he needs a whole lot more bully in him, more preacher in the pulpit, more old school, fire in the belly, rabble rousing rhetoric. Not demagoguery, the GOP has a lock on that, but capital T Truth-telling. Paint the stark realities of the choices we face and then lead like you mean it. Get Democratic leadership out in the communities with facts, figures, handouts, charts, graphs, tweets and youtube clips.  Not Goolsby with the white board, not boring ass lectures, not calm, earnest videos with facial close-ups and soft music. Just simple, stark numbers that demonstrate reality.

Want to get people donating Joe? First go kick some ass and take some names.  Announce that Obama will donate 25% of his campaign contributions ($.25 of every dollar) toward paying down the national deficit, and shame the Republican candidates into doing the same.  Donate the Presidential stipend back for a year and shame the Congressional leaders into doing the same with their salaries. (We know you all don't need that money.)  Cancel Congressional pensions/benefits for those members of the House and Senate with an annual income of over $1 million. And shame them into going along with it. Shame, Joe, is the most effective tool in the Presidential Rhetorical arsenal.  Use it!

Want people to donate? Come up with an actual vision for foreign policy, and then stick to it, so the President doesn't seem like a windsock who says the right things, but then doesn't follow up with actions to meet the vision. Promote the great job Secretary Clinton has done.  Remind us of the values America holds dear, dearer than short-term strategic considerations, and craft a plan to help cement American power and authority in the 21st Century. And then stick to your guns come hell or high water!

Then remind people that every time a Republican says "let the states do it" that we had that once.  It was the Articles of Confederation, and it failed miserably!  Ask why their greatest ideas come from the past, while yours come from the future? And for God's sake, stop trying to come up with slogans and soundbites.  "Get the car out of the ditch" and "win the future" were just shamefully cheesy, stupid, laughable efforts.  A soundbite is more effective when it comes out of a natural, passionate talking point.  The media will make it work for you, stop spoon-feeding them. Democrats need to be passionate and memorable, and the media will get the point. It is hard to know what the President believes and what his speech writers think will be memorable.  Cut out the latter!  The most recent address to Congress was a step in the right direction, and so have recent speeches.  More of that is needed. But don't just go to "campaign battle grounds" to give that speech; go to all the states to give that speech.  Let the people in Montana, Wyoming, Delaware, Alabama and West Virginia hear his voice and his message, not just Ohio, California and New Hampshire.

Want more donations? Point out the inescapable conclusion that the Republican leadership in the House is held hostage to extremists, then demonstrate it by submitting a gun control bill that would remove the weapons like the one that shot Representative Giffords and shove it down the Republican's faces when they vote against it, as you know they will. Submit the free trade agreements, and publicize it when the Republicans won't bring it up for a vote. Remind the American people that there is a social agenda that comes along with each and every Republican candidate for president that includes restricting a woman's right to choose, imposing a religious view on education, and that rolls back civil rights for gay people.  Bring these issues to the forefront.  Yes, the economy is bad, yes, we need to talk about it, but it isn't that complicated a formula to fix it: 1.2 trillion goes to support those in this country who can't support themselves.  That is a worthy cause, and an American cause and tax dollars are needed to make it work. We get that! Sure it needs reform, so reform it in simple, clear language. Then bring out the grandparents of Republican members of Congress who are on Medicare and Medicade and Social Security and show them what the Tea Party agenda does to their lives.  And if they don't have grandparents who draw those benefits because they are all rich, then point that out too!  Call Congress into special session and don't let them leave until the economy improves.  Get off the diesel bus and onto a train.  Revive the whistlestop tour on a green energy locomotive to show that you would actually use the transportation method in your green energy plan and talk to small town Americans about their lives.

Joe, when you and the President are out and about raising money from donors, you also need to be going to high schools.  Not ones that have this that or the other fancy program, but just regular high schools, and meet with members of the graduating senior class.  They are your future base. They can all vote if motivated to do so, so motivate them!  They go home and tell their parents that they met you, and the parents will be impressed you cared about their children. Tell every elected Democratic official that they all need to get into every nursing home, every senior center, every YMCA, every construction site and town common in their district, shake hands, and just talk to people. Don't make it an event, don't call the media, don't grandstand, just keep it simple, direct and personal.  Remind people that Democrats are the party of the people, for the people and by the people, and Republicans are the party of the corporation, the suit, and the country club.

It's not hard Joe.  Give the donkey back his balls, and then go out and kick.  Then I'll start to believe, hope, feel optimistic, and donate.  Because right now you have my vote, but not much more.

Best,

Whit's End
MA

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Trouble, Trouble, boil and bubble

The Obama administration faces a tough issue this coming week: Palestine is coming to the UN asking to be recognized as a nation-state.  They will first go to the Security Council, where the US says it will use its veto to block the proposal (the US favors a negotiated statehood--because that has been working so well for the last 30 years?), and Palestine will then go the General Assembly, where it looks like they will get a majority vote in their favor to move their status up.  Obama is in a quandary.

On the one hand, the US has been vocally (and materially) supporting Arab democracy movements all throughout the Middle East. Palestine will have a democratically structured government.  On the other hand the US is a staunch supporter of Israel, which does not want a Palestinian state, now more than ever, as hard-line conservatives dominate the Israeli political landscape and as Israel feels more hemmed in by hostile neighbors who are steadily maintaining their anti-Semitic tone and stance. 

So with the veto, the US will torpedo its credibility with the vast majority of the Arab world. (Saudis won't care as long as we keep ignoring their abuses so we can have their oil...) and satisfy an increasingly undemocratic and repressive ally.  Palestine has all that the Obama administration says they want to see in an Arab state, so there is no way to justify the hypocrisy of the veto and, say, the NATO actions in Lybia.  I expect to hear the semantic wriggle of "it is NATO, not the US," in response, as though NATO has an original thought without the US...

The reality is that time has come for Palestinian statehood.  Yes, Hamas is a player in Palestine.  Yes, they are a terrorist group that has vowed to demolish the Israeli state.  Yes, they also provide many social programs that are keeping Palestinians alive. But I'm not sure why Israel and the US don't see that if they allow Palestinians the economic and political freedoms that they are asking for, Hamas loses its ability to influence the young Arabs.  If Hamas is forced to behave as a responsible political actor, they lose their "outsider" cache, lose their militaristic capacity and become just another minority political party. If the economic limitations currently facing young Palestinians (fostered by the Israeli blockade of Palestine) are lifted, Hamas loses its ability to sway Palestinians to its point of view because other organizations can provide medical care, education, food, etc.

The irony in all of it is that Israel is protesting against the exact manner in which it became a state: the UN said it was so, and thus it was.  Now the displaced Arabs, who were not consulted in the creation of Israel 60 years ago, are using the same tool to gain their state back.  The smart thing, the consistent thing, the surprising thing, and the peace-generating thing, would be for the Obama administration AND Israel to vote in favor of the Palestinian nation-state when the time comes.  Then both work arm-in-arm and with the UN to force conformity to international norms of behavior that Palestine would then be obliged to recognize as a nation-state, like trade laws, standards of democratic behavior, military conventions, human rights conventions, and so on and so forth...In that way they would hamstring Hamas, and create a neighbor that could work constructively with Israel, rather than adding yet another hostile force on Israel's embattled borders.

Instead, the Obama administration will attempt to garner Jewish votes, keep Republicans from another talking point, and continue to muddle through its foreign policy like a rudderless ship, trying to be all things to all partners...

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

My jobs plan

On the eve of the USPS announcing that unless it severely restructures the way it does business, cutting Saturday delivery, closing thousands of small offices and laying off 100,000 or so employees, it is interesting to consider the state of government in that light.

It is interesting to note the all-time low regard in which Americans (speaking very generally here) hold their government, both legislative and executive branches; they expect the government to "fix" the economy and create jobs for them.  Or create the environment in which jobs will grow for them. In the absence of employment, they expect the government will provide them with some form of support in the intervening time period of no employment, thus making up for their lack of income. Oh, and they also expect to get money from the government when they retire from working a regular job. Right now, Congress has a what, 14% approval rating?  Now for fun let's count the number of times Boehner and company refer to their "mandate" to keep up their obstructionism...

So somewhere along the line, unemployed Americans began to expect that their government will provide them with an income.  At the same time, Americans (again, broadly generalizing) seem to feel that they pay enough money to the government in the form of taxes, and are not willing to consider paying more in order to help themselves out during tough economic times such as these.  And, the various organs of government that exist by for and of the people have agreed that, as Mitt Romney put it, "Corporations are people," and so they should not pay more taxes either, since that is seen as counter-productive to them creating the jobs that will obviate the need for the government to pay out more money to support them...

I would offer that, in the case of employment/job generation, the government would be well served to encourage corporations to create more jobs/expand their employment in the United States. Gound breaking, isn't it? The real question is how best to do this.  The standard Republican line appears to be to lighten corporation tax burdens, loosen regulations on their activities, and generally let them do whatever they want to do to the environment.  This will cause them to create good paying jobs for Americans.  As I've said before, I'm happy to link tax burden to employment/jobs created--the more jobs created, the lower the taxes paid. Quid Pro Quo.
      As for regulations, particularly the environmental kind, I'm in disagreement with the Republicans.  It seems to me that if you are requiring corporations to find new ways to clean up emissions, for example, then there is a need for new technologies to be created and implemented.  If that is happening, someone has to invent, design, build, install and monitor these new technologies...which, seems to me, would lead to a lot more jobs.  I do think it should be easier for corporations to build new factories or warehouses or whatever here in the USA. But not at the expense of the environment. I'd say, enhance regulations to require the construction of new green factories (jobs.) Build high tech distribution centers (jobs), build efficient warehouses (jobs) retro-fit existing factories (jobs) Not just construction-based, but then staffing by highly skilled workers... Oh, but the corporations will flee to other countries and build there where there are fewer regulations.  Then those companies that do leave (ahem, Mr. Romney) should be subject to a massive campaign to encourage Americans to buy elsewhere or boycott that product.  And the government should coordinate that.  We still are the largest and wealthiest consumer base on the planet, and companies ignore that at their peril.  The government as coordinator of mass action against a company is a significant incentive for the corporations to remain here. Import tariffs on their goods would also be a strong stick to threaten outsourcing companies with, and the WTO is not impacted by company based tariffs, only country based tariffs...
  Additionally, the Chinese example of creating a "Special Economic Zone" to build capitalism could be instructive here.  The Chinese said "in these areas, the government's rules are relaxed/missing when it comes to the way in which business is conducted." i.e.: socialism was suspended and private companies/individuals could make a profit.  Perhaps this idea could work in the US as well, where the federal government provides infrastructure for the corporations in order to encourage them to locate their new business centers in that place. (say, revitalize the Long Beach Harbor in LA...) If the government provides infrastructure, someone needs to build roads, bridges, train/bus/truck stations, etc.  Which means more jobs.  Then there is a new factory/warehouse/whatever, which means more jobs.
     The caveat there is that the government has to have enough money to pay those workers and to buy those materials (which also generates jobs), which means that tax dollars need to be allocated.  I'm ok with that allocation, even if it means borrowing more, as it seems like it would help in the long run.
    This pre-supposes that the jobs that are needed are jobs of this type, and that Americans will "lower" themselves to work in factories, building roads, bridges, etc...jobs that many Americans I know would turn their noses up at as not appropriate jobs for college graduates, etc.  Which leads to the question of what type of economy do we want: knowledge based, manufacturing based, or a mix of the two...a topic for another time.
    I'm sure Obama is going to plug away at the infrastructure angle of job creation, and work on the idea of re-training those unemployed workers to do better for themselves.  I don't disagree that infrastructure jobs are important (see above) and it will create an interesting dilemma for the Eric Cantor disciples in Congress ("No disaster aid without comparable cuts" my ass.  That man should be taken up to the international space station and encouraged to look at the big picture...from the outside...in his underwear...) as there must be spending to accomplish this goal...but I don't think we can build our way to 9 million new jobs.  And re-training isn't helpful if there aren't jobs to train for...

Ultimately, Americans need to stop looking to the government to create jobs.  Banks need to lend, businesses need to grow, and jobs will follow.  Nothing the goverment does will change those things.  Perhaps people should patronize only the banks that lend and the businesses that are growing, and send a message that way? 

Of course, the irony in the Post Office situation is that the US government has made it possible to do everything on-line now, thus cutting off the USPS from access to revenue...I e-filed my taxes, and collected my refund through electronic transfer.  There's at least $1 postage lost to the USPS...If I couldn't do those things (and no American could), that's around $150 million or so in just IRS generated income alone...So if we sacrifice a bit of convenience for a small bit of change in our pockets we wouldn't be looking at this Postal collapse at all, now would we? Maybe there's a lesson there for all of us...

Sunday, August 7, 2011

General Welfare

That budget deal does very little to help the deficit, and a whole lot to start to hurt the nation in both the long and short term.  I'm waiting to see if Moody's downgrades the US too...in the meantime...

In the Constitution, the phrase "general Welfare" shows up, but what exactly does that mean?  Good question!  The authors did not explain, so we have to guess a bit.

After the Civil War, the nation had to go through Reconstruction, which involved two major efforts: rebuilding the damaged infrastructure and citizens of the Southern states, and figuring out what to do with the population of now freed slaves.  These were people without education, housing, money, etc., and they needed help.

So the US government stepped into the breach and began to provide support for the populations, both white and black.  Over time, former slaves were stripped of their rights and standings as citizens and returned to a status of slavery by another name. Southern states were re-built, and the economic business of the United States continued without the formal institution of slavery  But the trend of the government providing support for its citizens continued. This grew during the Great Depression as the government attempted to provide employment opportunities for those out of work, Social Security for the retired, and Medicare and Medicaid, and unemployment checks for those who couldn't find work. Along the way the government also assumed the role of infrastructure builder (supplementing the states' efforts), took charge of energy provision, began to conserve the land and its resources, and began to get involved with the education of children, and the protection of the environment, among other things.

All the while, the government was living up to the clear Constitutional mandates for the government to provide for the common defense of the nation, and conduct diplomatic and economic relations with foreign nations...

Thus the "general Welfare" was defined through actions, not through Constitutional composition.  The question is: is all of this a reasonable expectation for a government? Is it the responsibility of government to care for all the people to the degree it now does?

Abe Lincoln, no stranger to the US government, referenced government "by the people, for the people and of the people."  But he stressed the word "people" in that phrase, not the prepositions.  This might be an important distinction to keep in mind thinking about the role that we the citizens expect of our governments.  In this day and age, it does seem that we stress the "for" first and foremost of the options, we pay lip service to the "of," and we ignore the "by." Sad, really...

However, I believe that the government must be invested in caring for the population.  I think it is appropriate to expect that government will take a somewhat paternalistic attitude toward its citizens; there is a place in the modern world for governmental support.  And in a capitalist economic setting, there will be those who fall behind in the marketplace, and I think that the government can and should step in to help those people out. But our government has over-extended itself and surpassed its budget;  never before has been so much been done for so many for so little revenue.  So what needs to happen? That'll be next...

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

ok, wait a minute

Coming back to the government's job in a moment...
Boehner and Reid are touting plans that each call for about $1 Trillion/$2 Trillion or so in cuts over 10 years from discretionary spending, "cleaning up waste" and, for the Democrats, savings from pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan. But no revenue changes.

1) In 10 years, who will in office in Washington DC? Right! We don't know.  But, whoever is in office is not bound to any deals made now, so that part of any plan falls under wishful thinking.

2) These proposals mean that about $100 Billion a year is cut from spending on the discretionary part of the budget, lowering it from oh, lets say $650 billion to $550 billion. (The Democrat's plan has a snowball's chance in hell in the House--the goal of the GOP is embarrass the President into not getting re-elected, so they won't consider it, thus rendering his party's plan moot.) Let's pretend for a moment that the prices of the various goods and services paid for by the US government won't change over 10 years (yeah right...but ok, just for kicks there's no inflation either...) So $100 billion will come off of the $1.2 Trillion budget shortfall. So we'll put that $100 billion toward reducing our $14 Trillion dollar gross national debt? Maybe we should all send them our pennies too, and help them pay that down quicker!

3) Social Security and the other Mandatory spending items will be reduced through streamlining Medicaid.  Aaaannnnd Social Security will continue to rise as more and more of our population ages.  Wanna bet that this increase in expenditures will off-set the mysterious waste that will be taken care of by these plans?

4) And hello, Democrats, are you actually foolish enough to imagine that in the next 10 years the US military will only be deployed here at home, that the US will not involve itself in any foreign conflicts, and we will magically be at peace, thus lowering our $680 Billion dollar defense commitment?  Get a grip!

5) All the while, no new revenues will be raised, meaning that unless the American public magically begins to earn higher wages from the imaginary jobs that are being created, we will continue to see a collection of around $2 Trillion in revenue...which will remain lower than spending levels under the best of circumstances.

6) All the while, our current examples of government incompetence is already resulting in lower confidence in the US to fix these problems.  This means that fewer investors will want to buy US bonds. Which means that interest rates on those bonds will need to be raised to make them more enticing to investors.  Which means that the US government will have to pay more money in interest payments to bond holders, which means that this portion of the budget rises...

Man, sure looks like that $100 billion a year (hell, even $200 Billion a year if we want to pretend that the Dems plan will get passed) will really fix the problems we have with the levels of national debt, won't it? Good work, you bunch of monkeys wearing suits....

Saturday, July 23, 2011

role of government part one

First of all a warm welcome to Smokey and Snickers to the family...Nice to have new energy around the home...
So the question I have rattling around in my brain is this: What exactly do we expect to get from our government?  What are we "owed" as participants in our social contract? what can our government do for us?
'Twould seem to be an easy question to answer.  Humans initially/naturally existed in a state of anarchy--no controlling authority.  There was nothing imposing order on their behavior toward one another.  Over time, as people switched to an agrarian way of living (as opposed to hunting and gathering their way through life) this anarchical society proved to be problematic.  Food being stolen means the grower can't eat.  So the choice is to spend all of one's time defending food from predators (which keeps the grower from growing and harvesting) or he can attempt to grow enough to feed predators enough to leave him alone, or he can organize with other growers to defend as a group.  I suppose he could also try reasoning with the predators and bring them around to his way of thinking...but I doubt that would work well...  So organizing together led to the first societies, which led to the first agreements on laws/rules and norms.
So at the core, we expect a government to impose laws/norms that have been commonly agreed to by the citizens, on those who might be less willing to follow them, while at the same time, arranging to protect those citizens from people outside the state who might not agree about the laws either.  So a government must arrange for a system of laws, a means to enforce those laws, a means to modify those laws, and some type of military to defend the nation.
That's the basis for government as we know it.  Now obviously it has evolved since then.
During the Enlightenment, the movement was to overthrow absolute monarchs, and return the power of governance to the general citizenship (though not everyone was a citizen, nor were they all enfranchised if they were), and they were pretty P.Od about the abuses that the monarchs had heaped upon them, so they wanted government to do more.  Laws were no longer just to protect property and life, but to protect abstract concepts like human and civil rights.  These were, at the time, largely contained to freedoms that the average American recognizes: Speech, Assembly, Press, Worship.  At the same time, they deepened laws of protection of property to include ideas like: a fair trial, facing accusers, the vague notions of innocent until proven guilty, and notions of due process leading to punishments that were neither cruel nor unusual.  Welcome to the Constitution.
As a backlash against the depredations of the absolute monarchs, this was very effective, and the goals are easily understandable as to why they were so necessary for the new governments of places like the US to hold on to its legitimacy.
This then evolves into a notion of a welfare state after the Civil War, and I'll see about that next post...

Friday, July 15, 2011

The death of the Republican Party?

So let's see if I've got this straight:

House Speaker John Boehner (Agent Orange) and Obama worked out a "Grand Plan" that called for $4 Trillion in cuts over 10 years, and tax increases on oil companies, corporations, and the top 2% of wage earners in this country.  Boehner took the plan to the House, and the freshmen members of his party said "no deal." So he backed off.  The Speaker of the House doesn't have the ability to line up his party members in the House.  So he has no power.

Senator Mitch McConnell (the Cowardly Lion), minority leader of the Senate, has come up with a plan that essentially says that the Congress will hand over its authority to regulate the financial debts of the USA (A prerogative clearly delineated in the Constitution, Article I, section 8) to the President of the United States, so Republicans can go back to their constituents and say: "We didn't raise the debt limit."  Apparently because he doesn't believe that he can get his party members to line up in support of another deal.  So the minority leader of the Senate has no power to influence his members. And he's willing to remove a constitutional prerogative from the entire legislature rather than do something politically unpopular/risky/dangerous.  Coward. He has a six year term precisely to insulate him from this pressure so that he can do what is right, rather than what is popular.

House Majority leader, Congressman Eric Cantor, rapidly emerging as the "Dr No." of all of this, appears to believe that the freshmen representatives in the House have a better view of how budgets should be balanced.  Thus, he is blowing up the spot of the Speaker, arguing disrespectfully with the President, and is generally pitching a fit about not getting his way.  The idea he is advancing is basically shrinking government to the point of non-existence, while cutting taxes, and thus not needing to raise the debt ceiling. He apparently forgets that the Articles of Confederation failed precisely because it could not generate revenue, and the US nearly defaulted on its debt to France and Holland. Thus, the consensus for the last 200 years has been to have a strong federal government, funded by the citizens...

Meanwhile, the Republican candidates are advancing all kinds of different plans ranging from Michelle Bachman's "only pay the soldiers" debacle to Romney's carefully defined plan that does and says nothing...

I don't think the GOP has been this fractured since TR became a Bull Moose.

Unmentioned by the press are the divisions in the Democratic Party over the issues of cuts to the entitlement programs.  It seems that despite their other faults, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are smart enough to stay out of the spotlight with their party's disfunction while the Republican "leadership" proves that they are actually not leaders at all, but are squabbling high school students.  Still, when the vote happens, it will be interesting to see who in the Democratic Party does what...

I wonder when/if the GOP upperclassmen are going to start laying some hurt on the Freshmen for speaking out of turn...The Tea Party doesn't have a lock on the Republican population, either in terms of ideology or in terms of numbers, so their strangle-hold on policy-making leaves me baffled.  Never thought I'd say this, but the party of Reagan needs to return to their roots and be fiscally responsible, not held hostage to an ideological fringe of their party.  Or they could self-destruct and we'll see a total retrenchment of the nation's conservative wing.

Meanwhile, I'm gonna invest in gold...

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Budget numbers--Taxes!

As stated in the previous post, the government spent $3.4Trillion, and took in $2.2Trillion in revenue, leaving a $1.2Trillion gap.  So let's look at the revenue side, shall we?

Of the $2.2Trillion, the vast majority of it came from personal income taxes and social insurance taxes (Social Security and Medicare taxes) 42% from the former and 40% from the latter. (Again, I'm using the Congressional Budget Office's figures here.) So US citizens paid out of their pockets $1.8 Trillion in taxes in 2010.  Corporations' paid taxes too; about 9% of government revenues came from corporations, or $198 Billion, and the remaining 9% came from "Other sources," and I'm not sure what that is/where that comes from...I'm assuming capital gains tax and inheritance taxes among others...

(As a side note, that means that Social Insurance programs took in about $880 Billion, but spent $1.4 Trillion...there's $400 Billion of our budget deficit right there...)

The CBO website has a fascinating graph that is part of a presentation made by Douglas Elmendorf, Director of the CBO which you can see here.  I'll convert one of the graphs to a chart for reference here. (So actual numbers are the product of eyeballing the graph...there may be some +/-...)

Quintile                                  Tax rate, % 1989                 %1999                   % 2007        
Highest                                           25+                                  27                           25
Fourth                                             20                                    20                        17/18
Middle                                            17                                    16                           15
Second                                            14                                    13                        12/11
First (lowest)                                   8                                      6                             4

So a few things I take from this. 1) There is a difference in terms of income levels and the rate of taxation, and personally I find that appropriate. The graph doesn't say what the cut-off levels are for quintiles, and I'm curious about that. 2) Revenues have averaged 18% of GDP since 1971 (but with no real trend), and dropped to 15% in 2007.  Our expenditures have steadily risen in that period, and jumped massively in 2006/7 and beyond.

Common sense would indicate that returning tax rates to their 1999 levels would be a smart move to make as a way to increase revenues and help to resolve the budget deficit.  Or a compromise would be to return half-way to the 1999 level, so a 1 or 2% increase in taxation rates for each quintile, which would spread the pain around somewhat.  Either generates needed revenue! This is looking solely at the numbers, and indeed, is a statement that doesn't take the current recession into account. It would also hit the lowest quintile the hardest, and I'm not sure that that would be a socially responsible thing to do.  Maybe the highest two quintiles go back to 1999 fully, the lower goes to the halfway point...

Given that there appears to be a linkage in joblessness and taxation rates in the minds of Dim Tim and his Republican cohort, is there a correlation between the two? According to http://www.miseryindex.us (which pulled its numbers from the US Department of Labor), in 1989 the unemployment rate stood at 5.26%. By the end of George H.W. Bush's term it was 7.49%. Under Clinton it dropped to 3.97% by 2000. Under Bush II it climbed to 5.99% in 2003, bounced a bit until hitting 5.79% in Bush II's last year. Under Obama, it skyrocketed to 9.2% in his first year, and last year sat at 9.6%. (And yes, I'm well aware that there are all kinds of problems with how we calculate unemployment statistics.  It doesn't matter here; any adjustment made causes all numbers to rise, so the trends remain the same...)

Democrats and Republicans can make whatever arguments that they want to about which party did what.  BUT, if you overlay the above information about tax rates on top of unemployment rates, it seems that a strong argument could be made that there is not a real linkage between the two.  We'd need a larger data set to really show causality.  However, I feel comfortable in saying that by implementing the Bush II tax cuts, Congress apparently did not make a difference in the creation of jobs; indeed, jobs continued to be lost as taxes went down and stayed down.

Moreover, corporations are sitting on massive amounts of profit (according to the New York Times, 3rd Quarter profits sat at $1.6Trillion) yet yearly revenues of $168Billion (indicated above) is less than a 10% taxation rate, a far cry from the posted 35% corporate tax rate.  As corporations are getting by with such low taxes and aren't hiring workers, it would appear that an argument can be made that there is no linkage between lower taxes and higher employment rates.  If that 3rd quarter alone were taxed at 35%, that would generate about $560 Billion in revenue, which would go a long way toward closing the budget deficit without sacrificing spending...(And yes, I'm aware that all those profits are not made in America, so there are some problems with how to determine what to tax.  Still, there be money to be made in them thar hills...)

Perhaps a deal could be offered.  The government will agree to a) declare profits to be the corporate equivalent of income, not capital gains, and b) lower the 35% rate to the highest individual quintile's tax rate if, and only if, corporations hire American workers.  Those who create jobs become eligible for the lower rate.  Those that don't, stay at 35%.  And I'm only talking about the Multi-National Corporations, I'm not talking about small business owners making below the $250,000 profit levels.  Leave them alone.

So the bottom line on taxation as a means to solve the budget deficit is that there is a way to reconfigure taxes to generate more revenue, and the government needs to generate more revenue.  It appears that the more people who are working, the more income is made, which means more taxation can be brought in. Corporations appear to be getting a nearly free ride, so I'd be much more in favor of going after them in a manner that links their tax status to their hiring practices.  Thus, revenue doesn't have to directly come on the backs of the citizenry.  Of course, since corporate profits are generated from consumer spending, we end up paying the money one way or another, right?

My conclusion is that combined with across the board, reasonable spending cuts, raising taxes in a fair and balanced way on the American public, coupled with doing better than a 10% rate of collection from corporations is a sensible way of bringing the budget into balance.

Again, all this serves to close the budget deficit, but it doesn't address the National Debt...it just keeps it from growing larger....

Budget numbers--Feeling Spendy...

OK, I'm going to take a swing at figuring out the budget deficit that is causing such trouble...I'm gonna take information from the Congressional Budget Office, since that is supposed to be a non-partisan organization, and any errors of mathematics are likely going to be mine, not theirs...
Sooo...the CBO reports the following are the breakdowns of the US Budget for 2010:
  • The US Government spent $3.4 Trillion
  • The US Government took in $2.2 Trillion in revenue
Thus, we have a budget deficit of $1.2 Trillion.

In order to get the money to make up that difference, the US sold Treasury instruments (bonds, bills, etc.) to investors--other countries, corporations, mutual funds, hedge funds, private individuals.... (The US then promises to pay an interest rate on those bonds to the holders of that debt for a period of either 10 or 30 years, and then return the original principal...that will come back later on...) The accumulation of that debt incurred over the years to cover that budget deficit is the gross national debt, which is now over $14 Trillion, and approaching the upper limit of the US ability to borrow. (Like we're hitting the credit limit on our credit card...)  Congress has to authorize raising that cap, or we lose the ability to borrow more money, and thus we can't spend any more, as we've already spent what we took in earlier in the year.

Yikes.

Our "leaders" are debating/bargaining over whether or not to raise this cap.  Actually, that doesn't seem to be quite right.  Instead it seems that one faction of the government is pushing to raise the cap if spending is cut, while the other faction of government is pushing to raise the cap if taxes are raised.  It doesn't seem as though there is debate about whether or not this cap should be raised...so let the bargaining commence....

To spending then.  According to the CBO, the budget of $3.4 Trillion in expenditures broke down as follows:
55% of it went to "Mandatory Spending Items." These include:
  • Social Security (37%)
  • Medicare (23%)
  • Medicaid and other health programs (15%) These "Big 3" add up to about $1.4 Trillion, or more than the total amount of our budget shortfall...
  • Other (16%) (I don't know what these are yet...)
  • Unemployment/jobless benefits (5%)
All of those are amounts mandated by laws passed by Congress, and cannot be changed unless Congress passes a subsequent law altering the amounts. It amounts to roughly $1.9 Trillion total. To be truthful, though, those amounts can and will go up as the population ages and more and more people sign into these entitlement programs...Thanks Boomers! Though a longer-term view would indicate that once that segment of the population begins to die off, those numbers will go down...it is a bubble, if you will.  Nonetheless, the amounts and percentages will continue to climb for the next decade or so.

The rest of spending breaks down thusly:
  • Defense 20% ($680 Billion)
  • Non-Defense Discretionary 19% ($650-ish Billion) This is everything from Pell Grants, to bridges and roads, to PBS funding, veteran's services, bridges to nowhere, etc.
  • Interest payments on already incurred debt 6% ($200-ish Billion) *Interesting to hear the Treasury Secretary say today that without more borrowing we can't continue to make our interest payments, thus if we don't continue to borrow we default on our loans...So we are borrowing from one credit card to pay down another...that just seems like lunacy...Defaulting on our debt is generally regarded as pretty much the end of the economic life that we have, so cutting interest payments is not even near the bargaining table for anyone who is remotely rational...

Congress is essentially looking at $1.3 Trillion of expenses where they can find some trimmings without having to go through the process of actually voting to make changes to the budget in the Mandatory areas.  In the last budget negotiations in the spring, one faction was pushing a $60 Billion cut in spending, the other wanted $20 Billion, and I think they settled in the middle.  It is like arguing about pennies, from one perspective, as $40 Billion in cuts isn't even a drop in the $1.2 Trillion sea...

So really, if Congress wants to attempt to fix this problem through only spending cuts, with draconian measures they can affect the amount of the gap between spending and revenue.  But even cutting Defense in half won't make a significant dent in the budget deficit (sorry mom...), and doing away with the various social programming that many Tea Partiers want won't also make much of a difference either. Put together, they can do some lessening of the gap, though. But without including the Mandatory Spending Items in the conversation, spending cuts in Discretionary Expenditures alone can't make a difference.

OK, so the bottom line on spending cuts to fix the budget deficit--there has to be pain all around to erase the budget deficit using this side of the equation as the solution. This is just the numbers talking, this is not including a very important conversation about what it means to "protect" and "provide for the common good/individual happiness"...(see earlier postings...)

And even if they do share the pain, that still doesn't impact the $14 Trillion we currently owe as debt...it just keeps it from growing any more...

Oh, and TARP or the bail-out package was an extra-budgetary expense.  So that was $700 Billion worth of raw debt, not a part of the rest of the budget...as the stimulus package to mitigate the recession was also extra-budgetary; another $800 Billion of raw debt...either that or the government just printed the money and hoped we wouldn't notice...

"I have a plan"

Heard Tim Pawlenty on Meet the Press this morning.  Though David Gregory is a poor replacement for Tim Russert in that he generally lacks personality (trending toward douche-y), Dim Tim is about as exciting as a house painted white with black shutters, and about as intelligent as paint chips...

He did a nice job of hitting on one of my pet peeves, though, with his repeated use of the phrase, "but I have a plan."  Followed by less-than-zero amount of articulation of that plan.  If you have a plan, describe it, Dim Tim! Enlighten us with the details!
But he, and his brethren in both parties, can't talk about "Their Plan" because a) it isn't their plan, and they don't really understand it (minions wrote it and gave them talking points--can't stray from the script, now, can we?) and b) "Their Plan" isn't anything different or unique; it is just more of the same wine in a slightly different bottle. So they just allude to a plan and when pressed say, "It's on my website," and talk about something else.  Nice.

Dim Tim did raise the point of being in favor of a Constitutional Amendment to require a balanced budget as a way to fix the current problems with the debt ceiling.  Gregory dropped the ball by not pointing out that such an amendment is a colossally bad idea for lots of reasons. One is that you can't balance the US budget as it currently stands in one fiscal year, which such an amendment would necessitate. Another is that debt isn't a bad thing, and borrowing is how the world works now, so we could play ostrich, shove our heads in the sand and not do what every other nation and business and person does, relying only on tax revenues to provide the services our government is legally obligated to (like Social Security and Medicare) or we could play in the same park as everyone else (just more responsibly...)
One of my favorite reasons why balanced budget Amendments are bad is that such an amendment would hamstring the United States government's ability to be somewhat flexible with their money.  This is important in that when confronting a natural disaster like, I dunno, Katrina, such an amendment would severely limit the government's ability to steer needed aid to the disaster agencies trying to help people. ('cause do you budget for only one natural disaster a year? two? How big? What is a "disaster?" Tornadoes in Springfield? Forest fires near Los Alamos? Hurricane's larger than category 2 only in urban areas?)
"Gee folks," says President Dim Tim, "Love to help you, but see, I'm legally required to only spend what I take in, and I can't raise taxes, so, sorry.  No money to help you re-build vital infrastructure like hospitals and schools.  And no money to help pay the workers who FEMA has to send to the area to help do things like open up the roads and bury the dead. Families and charities will have to step up and shoulder the costs."
Or,
"Gosh citizens," says President Dim Tim, "I'm afraid that we can't respond to those nasty terrorists who [insert horrific event here].  In order to find them and retaliate, we'd have to spend more than our budget currently allows, and I'm obligated by law to make sure we don't do that.  But what I can do is try to juggle our already thin military with our sparse equipment (can't afford to buy more, you know!) and see if I can get more troops in harm's way....and can't pay their salary either...But I'm really fired up about this!"
Dim Tim's an Idiot (with a capital I).  Balanced budget amendments are stupid.  Balanced budgets are smart and good things on all levels of the economy, but even the best of budgets can't possibly respond to all contingencies that can arise. Flexibility is a necessity in this day and age, and Amendments to the Constitution aren't the solution to any economic problems.

As an aside, the historical record of states/governments that endure when they can't pay their armed forces well is: armed forces led-coups: 100, broke governments: 0. That's a lesson to pay attention to...

Friday, July 8, 2011

Thoughts from PT

Going to Physical Therapy helps on a number of levels...

Some thoughts on the US' deficit dilemma.  My PT (hiya Kipp!) is similar to many people who like to talk about the government as though it were a business, which echos the Republican view.  From this point of view, there are two columns that matter: Revenue and Expenditures.  So, when the business is in trouble, it can either generate more revenue, or it can cut back on expenses. 
  • Does our government spend too much? Yes.  
  • Does it spend more than it takes in? Yes again.  
  • So can cutting spending be a part of the solution? Yes a third time. 
Much work needs to be done to examine how our government spends its money, and there are many areas to target in the debate. I'll come back to that later.

On the Revenue side, when money becomes tight, the business needs to generate more revenue.  So it needs to sell more product, attract new clients, or raise prices on its goods/services.  From the standpoint of the government, revenue comes from four sources:  printing money; selling assets; borrowing money; and taxation.
  • Should the government print more money? No, (though it does anyway) because this leads to inflationary pressures. 
  • Should the government sell some assets? Sure, but this doesn't seem to even be a part of the conversation, though it could sell Amtrak, for example, thus raising money and doing away with an expense at the same time...
  • Should the government borrow money? Yes, as an alternative to printing money or raising taxes.  Borrowing is a globally accepted method (since it began in the mid-1400's) of raising money swiftly to meet spending needs, and done judiciously, it is fine. We don't borrow judiciously, either as individual citizens or as a government, so this is a problem for us.
  • Should the government raise taxes? Yes, given that the other alternatives aren't so great.  I'm not sure where I am with the idea of a flat tax, but I do think that, in general, if the American people felt their tax dollars were spent responsibly and in a way that directly benefited them, most people would pay their fair share without too much grumbling. What's a "fair share?" Good question, I'll think about that and get back to you later on. (And I'm not going to word-smith it as the Obama administration is setting up to do. "Closing loopholes."  Please...)

All that above, though, ignores a pretty simple fact: the government is not a business.  The very nature of the Social Contract articulated by the Enlightenment thinkers and adopted by those who helped to found the nation is that the government exists to protect and preserve the citizens so that they may pursue happiness. This is the classic, though poorly articulated, position of the Democrats, who appear to believe that this generally means allowing the citizen and corporation-hogs to feed at the government trough to their hearts' content. As a result, our spending isn't targeted, isn't helpful, and needs to be revised. Time to slaughter some pigs, Nancy!

How we define "protect" and "preserve"and "happiness"in the 21st century is the conversation that we need to have as a citizenry.  What is the role of the government today? What is the modern Social Contract? Answering this question will help to figure out a path to take into the future. The nation today is certainly a very different place with a population of 300+ million and stretching from sea to shining sea than it was in the 1790s, when the first census said about 3.8 million people called east of the Appalachians "home."  Can we reasonably expect the same from our government in the 21st century as it provided in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries?


I doubt it...

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Bananas in a Barrel

That's a hard combination of words to spell accurately...I had to pay attention to both, and as a result, neither looks right.

In any event, the recent decision by the DESE (that's the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to you and me, though we still call it the Department of Education...) to incorporate student results on standardized tests as a key component of teacher evaluation was not a surprise to anyone who's been paying attention.  Race to the Top mandated it, so if states wished to access the federal government's money, they had to agree to this provision. In true bureaucratic fashion, it was left a vague component: simply "significant" portions of the teacher's evaluation are to be based on student performance on standardized tests...whatever that may mean.

Here's my problem: standardized testing is the equivalent of getting a monkey to put a banana into a barrel.  It is the result that matters, not the process.  A monkey can get the banana into the barrel by throwing it, dropping it in with either hand, either foot, or even a tail, or its mouth.  The end result is the same: one banana in one barrel.  Standardized tests are the same; they don't care how the test-taker gets to the right answer, the test-taker just has to find the right answer, and bubble it in.  This, to me, is not education.  Of far greater interest to me as a teacher is to see how creative students can be in achieving the goal, regardless of whether or not they succeed.  I'd rather see a monkey learn to catapult the banana into the barrel by jumping off a branch and onto a board balancing on a rock, causing the banana at the other end of the board to fly into the barrel, than see a monkey pick up a banana in its right hand, walk over, and drop the banana into the barrel.

Yes, metaphors are a specialty...

Sadly, the most direct way to solve any problem is often the easiest and most self-evident.
Sadly, most teachers will, upon realizing that getting most if not all of their students to the right answer allows them to keep their jobs, direct their students to the easiest and most self-evident way to solve the problem.
Sadly, most students, being uninspired by school and being naturally lazy thinkers (as teens, anyway) will be more than happy to use only the easiest and most self-evident way to solve the problem.
Thus, bananas go into barrels, correct answers will be bubbled, teachers will keep their jobs, students will be advanced to the next level, and true learning will die.  Innovation will be discouraged, risks won't be taken, and school will be where creative young people wither, rather than thrive.

I bet there's a long-term ramification for the economy of the United States here...

Initial post

Welcome to my blog.

I'm going to put out my thoughts to all you lucky, lucky people on any number of subjects that catch my eye.  Mostly these will have to do with education and politics, and the politics of education.  I figure with the upcoming election my choices are to either walk around the house talking to myself a lot, or write them down so they get out of my brain.

I'll be happy to respond to comments if and only if they meet the following criteria:
1) They are thoughtfully composed--and by that I mean you use actual grammar, spelling and punctuation in addition to using your brain before you write
2) They are free from profanity.

See you on the inside...